Voluntourism

I am done with my finals now, so I hope to post these two things that I’ve been meaning to write about in a while.  First, the topic of “voluntourism”.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I took an anthropology that was called, “The New Humanitarianism”.  It was a really interesting class and my professor is definitely unique.  I learned a lot.  The class was essentially about the intersection between humanity, human rights, and humanitarianism, plus citizenship.  One of the main themes that ran through the class was that starting in the 1970s, there has been a trend that we (referring to someone like me, someone from a privileged first-world background — the Global North) need to engage in humanitarian actions in places outsides our borders in order to give people human rights (access to health care, education, credit, etc) in the name of humanity.  There has been a popular universalizing rhetoric that has emerged because it justifies why people act upon others — we have good intentions to take care of other people.  As humans, we all share a common bond.

Why do we do that?  We believe that we are one people, and in that belief, there are some universal things that we all must have. Right?

There are many other reasons, and maybe I’ve illuminated some of the reasons why I do engage in these spaces.

But, let’s be critical here.  When we intervene in other people’s spaces, what are we really saying?  Well generally, we are saying that we don’t believe that the other state could provide to its people.  We believe that it is a failed state, and because people are not being guaranteed their basic human rights (that are universal?) or they are being stripped of their human right (to live — genocide), we need to step in to fill in the spaces where the state lacks.  Essentially, we need to intervene because the state can’t or won’t do it.

Does that make sense? Here’s an example.
The earthquake in Haiti occurred in 2010. It caused billions of dollars in destruction. It destroyed infrastructure and displaced so many people. So, how did the rest of the world respond? Money was immediately sent to NGOs like the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders. Then, so many people outside Haitian borders were on the ground, helping clear the rubble and removing dead bodies. Even a song was made about it, urging people to contribute to the cause.

We Are the World.

In the media, you hear a lot about what everyone else is doing, but what about the local people and the local government? Are they supposed to allow us to help them?  Especially when we don’t know much about their lives? Is the local government supposed to let us come in and build buildings and care for the invalid? When we intervene, we are ignoring the structural issues that cause the poverty, that deprive people from these rights that we believe they should have.  And in many cases, we are undermining the state from doing it themselves (because we can do it in their place).

Here’s a Ted Talk about voluntourism:

I’m not going to discount the tragedy that was the Haitian earthquake. It was definitely catastrophic that altered the course of life of many Haitians.  Today, they still deal with the aftermath.  I am also not trying to say that we can’t help out or it’s bad that we do help out.  I do truly believe that as a society we need to first, learn to help each other out and second, learn to accept that help (but that’s another story).

What I am trying to say is that when we intervene, there’s always a sentiment, even an arrogance, that we can be helpful, simply because we want to be helpful. But, the great thing about being a voluntourist is that we get to leave and they have to deal with what we’ve done.

So, let me go into how I have been feeling about my own experiences in Vietnam and being a voluntourist.

In general, there is this sentiment that when you are a voluntourist, you are a little bit better than just a tourist.  Why?  Because you are more aware.  You know that there is poverty and inequality in the area that you are working, and not only are you going to see that poverty, but you’re going to try to do something about it.

But, is it arrogant of me to think in such manner?  Just because I intend to do no harm, it does not mean that I don’t actually do any harm?

My time in Vietnam was short, and I was able to learn a lot. I wrote a lot. I noticed a lot of things about the poverty there.  I spent 40+ hours a week at an office, working on whatever they gave me. But, I also hung out with my friends a lot.  I sat at coffee shops.  I went to visit my family and traveled to different places in the country. I helped the local economy (?) by buying food from street vendors. I was a voluntourist.

I did all the touristy things while working at an NGO five days a week.

And how do I feel about what I did? When I think back to a year ago and try to remember what I did, I don’t feel like I did enough.  I wasn’t there long enough to see projects come into fruition.  I was involved in some policy work and I wrote grants that would implement educational campaigns.

One of things that we, as GPP minors, struggle with is the decision to deal with the structures or band-aids of poverty.  The work of voluntourism is generally band-aid work.  Some people that I met in Vietnam volunteered at orphanages or taught English.  It is not to say that band-aid work isn’t needed.  And when you’re there for a short period of time, it seems only natural.

It took me a long time to accept that I was a voluntourist because personally, I thought it had a negative connotation too.  It is hard to accept that the work that you are doing could potentially be harmful.

When I worked for the NGO, did that mean that I thought the government could not take care of its people?  In one perspective, yes.  But, in another, I learned the government did not do enough of its people, and it was necessary for us (the NGO) to help the local authorities know more about the community in order for them to better serve that community.  Then again, people would also argue that the Vietnamese government is corrupt and have no intention of doing anything in their people, so it is absolutely necessary for an NGO to step in.

I believe that doing any work towards poverty alleviation is something that cannot be done perfectly, without negative consequence.  As paralyzing as that thought may be, I believe that it is a noble endeavor to pursue.  It is important to be critical and be aware of all our intentions and actions along the way.

Over and out.

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